Beyond family, Andrew Bachelder of Fort Worth, Texas has two passions in life. One is golf and the other is sharing his personal story of near-death, recovery and redemption. And he attacks both with the zeal of someone who knows he’s been given a second shot at life -- two of them, in fact.
Addressing a hushed audience of area firefighters at Lakeview Pavilion last Friday evening, Bachelder wove both of these passions into a spellbinding narrative that focused on two narrow escapes -- first from a helicopter crash that nearly claimed his life and, later, from the demons that nearly consumed him.
Bachelder, a former Marine Corps helicopter crew chief who had been deployed three times during nine years of service, delivered his remarks as keynote speaker at Foxboro’s biennial Firefighter’s Ball.
This time-honored tradition for the town’s fire-service families more recently has been widened to first responders in surrounding communities. It’s an opportunity to dress up, swap stories and enjoy the camaraderie that comes from shared mission and lifestyle.
Accompanied by his wife, Debi, the father of two children traveled to Foxboro for the occasion at the invitation of local firefighter/paramedic Corey Shepardson. The two met at a golf outing several years back, and Shepardson figured Bachelder’s story would resonate with first responders from Foxboro and surrounding towns.
As it turned out, that proved to be an understatement.
Almost exactly 10 years ago – on Oct. 26, 2009 – Bachelder was assigned to a night mission involving two helicopters over the southern Helmand province of Afghanistan. During the exercise the lead helicopter, a Cobra, and Bachelder’s Huey lost sight of each other, colliding in midair and claiming the lives of four Marines.
Among those who died that night was Capt. Kyle Van de Giesen of North Attleboro, whose widow, Megan, also was in attendance at Lakeview Pavilion last Friday.
Bachelder and one other crew member survived the crash. He suffered a broken back and fractured pelvis. He also shattered his right leg, had a collapsed lung, five broken ribs and a broken shoulder. More ominously, he was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury.
Multiple surgeries and weeks of physical therapy followed. But this proud Marine was determined to return to duty as soon as possible. In December 2009 he was released from the hospital and the following March – less than six months after the fatal collision – he was back with his squadron. He was a Marine, after all. It was where he belonged.
But something had changed. He had changed. That was evident the moment Bachelder walked back into the flight hangar at Camp Pendleton, Calif. and experienced what could best be described as a wave of panic.
“I was hit with an overwhelming feeling of anxiety, heartache and confusion,” he told listeners. “You see, I suffered from survivor’s guilt, pain medication abuse and PTSD, all of which compiled into anger issues.”
It marked a descent into what he called “the darkest days of our lives.”
Given his mental health struggles, Bachelder soon was transferred to a Marine “Wounded Warrior” battalion and by early 2012 had retired from the Corps. He and Debi returned to Texas, where they purchased a house and he continued with therapy.
But in the absence of fellowship and support from friends in the Marine Corps – the same camaraderie enjoyed by area firefighters last Friday night – his downward spiral continued. Heavily overmedicated (he took to “doctor-hopping” in order to obtain additional prescriptions), tortured by self-doubt and feelings of worthlessness, Bachelder attempted suicide in September 2012.
It would be nice to suggest this second brush with death was Bachelder’s very own “It’s a Wonderful Life” moment – a sudden, euphoric reawakening to all he held dear. More accurately, it marked the start of long journey back from the brink which included two stays at a psychiatric hospital.
Having completed the hard work necessary to rehabilitate his body, Bachelder now had to work on restoring his soul.
“I had two beautiful children, a loving wife and an endless group of loving family and friends,” he said ruefully. “And what would those four men who selflessly gave their lives think of me if I met them upstairs and told them, ‘Hey guys, I couldn’t handle being alive so I took the easy way out’?”
But if friends and family provided a lifeline, Bachelder needed a pastime to provide structure and focus. Fortunately, during physical therapy he rediscovered his passion for golf – a game he had enjoyed while growing up next to a course in Fort Worth.
Playing regularly for the first time in years, Bachelder in 2013 was accepted to compete in an annual tournament for wounded veterans hosted by former President George W. Bush. Since then he has refined his game – carding a plus-1 handicap, winning the Bush tourney twice (in 2015 and 2018) and recently graduating from the Golf Academy of America Dallas.
Not surprisingly, the former staff sergeant now finds himself in demand as an inspirational speaker, as well as frequently competing in charity golf tournaments to raise money for veterans’ causes.
Last Friday night, however, he directed a pointed message to the assembled first responders, whose duties also take an emotional toll and where critical incident stress debriefings have become commonplace. That message was as straightforward as it was heartfelt:
Don’t try to go it alone.
“This is not a battle that can be won individually – and you will not win it individually,” Bacherlder warned. “That is why I am here this evening – to let you know that it is OK to mourn. It is OK to cry. It is OK to be sad. It is OK not to be OK. It’s just not OK to not say anything.”
He then challenged listeners with one last bit of advice, a reminder that faith, hope and love remain the bedrock of our existence.
“Just know, it is OK to speak up and speak out,” Bachelder said. “If you are struggling, this is me telling you, asking you, pleading with you – ask for help. It will be the best thing you have ever done for your family and, most importantly, yourself.”